During the first 10 years of my career in publishing and media, I worked as a magazine editor, book editor, journalist, and syndicated columnist. I wrote about a wide range of topics, from the environment to education to women's advancement to pop culture to pregnancy. I also edited writers covering equally varied subjects, many of whom focused much of their work on Latinos in the United States. My own work often concerned the state of Latinos in the country at the time, the first decade of the 21st century.
At my first journalism job—as an editor at Urban Latino, a magazine written for, and mostly by, Latinos in the United States—my sense of duty toward our readers was often accompanied by nagging uncertainty about how much information was too much information. I was not the only one; my colleagues also struggled with striking a balance between offering our readers upbeat and positive news and information about our communities, and covering less attractive aspects of being Latino in the States.
Once, I encouraged the magazine to run an article on the tension-ridden relationship between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. At first, the editorial team was excited about igniting a debate on an issue that had at the time been getting a lot of attention in the world press. As I began working with the writer, I started having second thoughts. What would fellow Dominicans think? Would I be airing our secrets? Did other Latinos need to know about this? As the assigning editor, I could have pulled the story but decided to run it, since any reaction—and I fully expected there to be plenty—would be a step in the right direction. (A couple of letters did reach our offices, and we did print them.)
Some years later, I pitched a national op-ed to my editors at the Progressive Media Project, a syndication service that creates, edits, and disseminates opinion editorials on timely national and international issues. I wanted to write about the impact some cultural practices and moral codes could have on the spread of HIV/AIDS among Latinos, especially women. My contention was that the generalized acceptance of infidelity among Latino men was leading to more women who were married or in other presumably monogamous relationships getting infected. Much of the research I conducted as I wrote the op-ed supported my thesis.
Before contacting my editor, I agonized about the idea for days. My first fear was that I would somehow come across as condemning cultural practices accepted by many Latinos. Another fear was that my article might be seen as "explaining" some cultural aspects of our heritage to a general audience. The idea of doing either made me very nervous. After much consideration, I resolved that shedding light on the matter, even if the article reached only a small group of people, would be worth any potential grief I might face from readers. In the end the op-ed was well received, and I did not hear any negative feedback.
My decision was based largely on the belief that it's fitting to discuss how cultural beliefs, practices, and attitudes—and the misinformation they can sometimes lead to—affect our health. At Urban Latino we wrote about a woman in Chicago who adamantly refused to believe that her husband had given her an STD. She was convinced of his faithfulness. In the meantime, a counselor got him to admit that he had ventured from the marital bed. In another story we explored how our elderly, as a matter of personal choice or necessity, frequent healers, spiritualists, and clairvoyants when they should be examined by medical doctors.
Without undermining the cultural role such practices play in our lives, any reporter—Latino or not—should feel that part of our professional responsibility involves exposing how such practices might be hurting us. As (Latino) journalists, we should not feel that we're airing family secrets when we report on a santera's inability to cure a serious medical condition.
Often when I think about seldom-covered topics, I feel an obligation to pierce the veil of nostalgia through which many Latinos see ourselves in the United States and to crack the crystallized image we have of our native lands. I believe we hold on to stagnant memories that keep many of us from embracing ourselves and our home countries as we/they truly are.
Perhaps it was the brazenness of youth that propelled us to seek out stories at Urban Latino that other Latino publications didn't. For example, we dared our readers to learn about slums in Nicaragua, where girls are forced into prostitution from age 10. We also reminded those who point fingers at foreign perpetrators that many of the tens of thousands of Colombian women prostituting themselves throughout the world were sent away with their families' blessings. And we celebrated the rich African legacy of Honduras's Garifuna people, while highlighting their struggle for land and equality.
Journalists—regardless of race, gender, religion, or other identity characteristics—have an obligation to the truth. We record events we witness or gather from sources. In many ways, reporters are present-day historians, creating a record of life as it happens.
However, do some reporters, because of who they are, what they look like, or where they come from, have a responsibility to report another kind of truth, a responsibility that can allow them to take sides on certain issues? In light of the blatant prejudice that often passes for news, should Latino journalists, for example, exclusively report on our communities in order to ensure more balanced and accurate coverage?
Latinos do not bear a special burden to cover our own communities. Are journalists who are also parents obligated to report on children's issues? Are Baptist reporters confined to covering events that affect fellow practitioners?
Furthermore, if a Latina wants to cover the science beat or the technology beat or the environment beat, she is in no way mandated to go and find the Latino medical researcher or the Latino executive at Apple or the Latina marine biologist studying the life cycles of coral reefs. If she happens to find any of them, and writes about them, so be it. But her first and only obligation is to report with accuracy and a balanced perspective, giving equal time to all sides of an issue.
Another burden Latino journalists should not bear is that of educating "mainstream" (read: white) America about us. Instead, our responsibility is to arm ourselves with knowledge to combat the deluge of ignorance that floods magazines, daily papers, and the Internet. We must seek out the good and the bad. And we must be willing to report on both.
As an editor at a magazine for Latinos, I also took very seriously the task of reminding readers that many of us have become comfortable—some to the point of complacency—with the notion that the umbrella term "Latino" means we're a monolithic group. When we speak among ourselves, no one denies that Chicanos, Cubanos, Dominicanos, and Argentinos are quite different from one another. But as soon as conversations open to include white participants or references, we obediently form a cultural chorus line that dances to a forced tune.
This response often misleads non-Latinos into thinking that we are in fact monolithic and that any one of us, or any one group, can speak for all of us. There is no real benefit for us in this reaction; we do it simply as a defense mechanism to protect what very little economic, political, social, cultural, and physical space we have in this society.
Following the 2000 National Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York, several young women were attacked by revelers in Central Park. Urban Latino published a conversation we had with two prominent leaders. We titled this exchange "Breaking Our Code." When these attacks were first seen on television in snippets of homemade video, we asked ourselves what we should do about it. Do we make a public statement? Do we seek out some of the people involved? Do we examine the mainstream/white media's coverage? We knew we had to do something, but at first we couldn't figure out exactly what.
Then we started listening very carefully and realized that we—the editors and staff—were afraid to speak openly and truthfully even to each other. I suspect it was because of heightened cultural sensitivity, since among our editors were a Colombian, a Puerto Rican, and a Dominican (me). That's when the only productive course of action became obvious—we had to talk to respected individuals who could spark a dialogue with and among our readers.
The reaction was astonishing. Our interviewees—then-CNN correspondent Maria Hinojosa and former Young Lord Richie Pérez—were so forthcoming and honest, it was a painful task to edit their comments to meet length requirements. Our readers were very grateful, women especially. They congratulated us for broaching the subject in a critical way. We were pleased to have set this precedent for ourselves. Issue after issue, we continued to seek similar opportunities to initiate this kind of open dialogue.
After many years of writing about all sorts of topics—many that specifically affect Latinos, many more that don't—I have accepted the fact that my obligation is first and foremost to my craft and my profession. I must use the tools and skills I have acquired to do my very best reporting and writing. I must strive to tell the most accurate story. If, in the process, I shed some special light on an issue that affects my fellow Dominicans, my fellow Latinos, or my fellow (insert category here), then I have reason to feel especially good about that particular story.
By the time it comes off the presses and arrives in people's hands, I've already moved on to the next one, feeling the same clarity and commitment I bring to every story.
Juleyka Lantigua-Williams is the managing editor of Next America.
This essay appears in a forthcoming fiction and nonfiction collection, Daring to Write: Contemporary Narratives by Dominican Women, edited by Erika M. Martínez, The University of Georgia Press, 2016.